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Rebooting science journalism – thoughts from Timmer


Colour? Science journalists care not for colour.

It’s been more than a week since ScienceOnline 2010. Like many other people who went, I’m recovering from the disease that has become known as Scio10 plague, or sciflu, or Ed Yong plague (curse you, Skloooot!) and the depression of not being surrounded entirely by passionate, enthusiastic, ground-breaking people. Which explains why it’s taken me this long to post reflections on the Rebooting Science Journalism session that I chaired. This will come but, for now, my co-panellist John Timmer has kindly provided his own ruminations. This is, incidentally, the first guest post that anyone’s ever done for this blog but I’ll happily make an exception for a journalist of John’s calibre. Here he:

One of the odd things about actually being on the Rebooting Science Journalism panel is a product of the fact that we turned over everything to the audience after we’d had our say. We never got the chance to ask each other questions, or try to sum up everything that was said during the session. But one of the ideas we all seemed to agree on is that the medium doesn’t matter, so I’m going to borrow Ed’s blog to try to piece together my take on what was said and see if I can get my fellow panelists and anyone else who may be interested to let me know what they think.

I came away with two pairs of related concepts. The first set came from David Dobbs, who noted there’s two things about science that really motivate our writing: “wow, that’s neat,” and “hrm, that’s strange.” As Ed noted, if someone’s feeling that motivation, it doesn’t matter if they’re a blogger, podcaster, print journalist, etc.–the distinctions really aren’t clear, and we’ve had too many examples of both excellent and awful things done in all formats to find any of them inherently superior.

Ed mentioned that he starting writing this blog because he kept getting his story ideas turned down, and it’s clear from the content here that he’s got no shortage of good ideas and good writing, regardless of what editorial decisions he’s suffered through. In the same way, Carl described how a story he wanted to do got turned down by the Times; when he put it on his blog, complete with a video of duck erections, it got over a hundred thousand views.

These are examples of what you might call “pull”–stories so compelling that they’ll bring readers in to see what’s happening no matter where they appear. I tried (with less success than I’d like) to argue that we also need push, sites that put science in front of a set of readers that aren’t necessarily looking for it, and in fact may find it seriously uncomfortable. (Bora argues for the same thing in this video, but focuses on TV and the radio. I think pushing works in all media.) I think we need a bit of both if we’re going to provide the sort of functions that we generally agree that science journalism should: provide accurate information to the public about a field that has important things to say about everything from human nature to policy decisions.

(What I was attempting to argue was that we’ve got all these researchers who are now interested in writing for a popular audience, and a lot of sites that are like Ars, with a large readership that might be open to reading more quality science journalism. We need to do more to try to get the two together–to do more to push science writing. Unfortunately, I had the sense that I was running badly over my time limit, and never got around to making this explicit.)

Thinking about it since, I’ve been convincing myself that these two pairs of ideas–neat/strange and pull/push–are somewhat related. It’ll take a couple of paragraphs to explain why, but I’ll start with this: the popularity of stories like Carl’s duck sex videos requires an interplay between the pull–a compelling topic and Carl’s excellent writing–and dozens of small pushes. I’m not sure of the ratio among them, but the people who read stories like that find them through a combination of word-of-mouth (or modern equivalents, like Twitter), social news sites like Digg, and news aggregators like Slashdot and Boing Boing.

We don’t really have much control over word-of-mouth and, in part because of the dismal understanding of science, stories that do well on places like Digg often have only a passing resemblance to science (something that the “wisdom of the crowd” advocates would do well to note). But I’d argue that the aggregators are probably a major factor in determining which stories go big, and they fall roughly within the push category. So, the difference between pushing and pulling stories, like so many things in life, isn’t a simple binary distinction.

I’ll now loop back to my idea, which is the fact that we’ve got a ton of quality people interested in communicating science, and a lot of sites that are staffed by people with only the vaguest familiarity with what constitutes good science. I’m consistently amazed by the sheer volume of garbage that winds up being featured within the science category at Slashdot. If someone with a good science background went to the people responsible for one of those sites and offered to help provide a degree of credibility to the science section, would those managers respond positively? I’d bet some of them would, though I’d be interested in hearing whether anybody’s actually tried and been turned down.

All of which sets me up to loop back to David’s pair of motivations for science coverage, the “neat vs. something odd” tension. I worry that the increasing reliance on pulling readers places an undue emphasis on the stories about something neat. The stories we write when something smells funny are equally important, and can help the public understand the limits of what we can say about many areas of science, so de-emphasizing them comes at a real cost. This is especially true for the stories that are a bit of both: sounds neat, but smells odd. A lot of the more popular, “pull” coverage of these tends to emphasize the neatness at the expense of highlighting issues with data or interpretation, and that’s a significant loss when it comes to public understanding.

Of course, these are just the ideas that I came away with, and I’d expect that my fellow panelists might have been drawn in other directions, or have some thoughts on the above. If so, I’m looking forward to hearing them.

8 thoughts on “Rebooting science journalism – thoughts from Timmer

  1. Perhaps the two could be combined somehow? Suppose there were a Digg-like site where membership were somehow limited to scientists?

  2. I’m not sure the duck story entirely proves the point for “pull” stories based on science – I think it shows that sex sells, as it always has.

  3. John,
    I’ve got a post ALMOST done, but wanted to add 2 cents worth of agreement here on a main point you make: That particularly with “That smells funny” stories (by which I mean, something fishy that needs exposure), push is important, because they often don’t have much pull power. Why so little pull power? Because “This smells funny” stories often tell people stuff they’re not eager to hear, or that is complex. Fraud in science. Overdiagnosis of PTSD. Conflicts of interest in psych researchers. People don’t gravitate toward those, but they’re important. Usually they get attention only if a NY Times or a Science or Nature or a Scientific American puts the story on its front page. (Sometimes, of course, big stories do NOT make it to prominence, reflecting failures on the sort that have drawn deserved criticism.)
    So a key worry for me in the new press/journo/info landscape is how important but unpleasant and unsexy stories will get enough play to shape public discourse. Possibly some of the new content partnerships that Jay Rosen and others are working on might help this. I hope to be more hopeful about this too as time passes — that the spirit of energy and innovation that we now see erupting among many journo types and scientists will solve some of these problems. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a key one to solve.

  4. Brian, I like your idea. I think the hardest part would be determining how to limit membership to credible scientists. If you have some suggestions on how to do that, I’d like to hear them.

  5. While it’s true that some stories have universal appeal, I’d be surprised if even the most ‘unpleasant and unsexy stories’ couldn’t find a science writer to love them. People do have amazingly varied interests. Maybe the problem (and the solution) is in organizing all the resources available.

  6. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how radically what pushes and what pulls has changed. When the focus is newpapers and TV, the push is only if a science story is put at a time or place where someone who wasn’t expecting to learn about science was looking. There was/is a pull to things like the NY Times Science section, but that also isolates the stories from anyone who want to ignore them.
    Now that articles can be automatically forwarded to friends, aggregated, blogged about, etc, there are many more opportunities for pushes. None of them have a push to everyone, but pieces of science journalism are reaching more people. There are a lot of other things going wrong, but, at least to me, this seems like something that is right.

  7. I am a retired writer/editor/manager with a lifelong fascination with science. I have for years suffered from lousy science and technical writing, and have tried to improve the situation by teaching courses formal and informal about how to research an area, read critically, and write intelligently for a non-expert literate audience.
    Watching the climate scientists clambering over each other to get the latest faux pas out into the light of day, and to see the helplessness of fine honest scientists under the onslaught of the TV talk show hosts, I decided to build a blog to showcase scientific writing on controversial subjects: evolution, climate change, and nuclear energy/waste management. The idea is to present a wide range of writing on these subjects and on critical thinking, and then, as time allows, to write critical analyses of select articles. I would hope that eventually other people would post articles and write critical reviews of posted articles for the blog,:Thinking Critically About Science”.
    Your site and philosophy provide role models I hope to present to a literate audience.
    Long live good science and technical communication!

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